Teaching is the most rewarding but also the hardest thing I have done in my career. It seems to me the immediate goal of an educator is to help students construct an accurate, robust, and useful internal representation of a subject. (The ultimate goal can vary, but usually involves learning how to learn — enabling the student to independently expand their knowledge and expertise.)
Let’s use an analogy to highlight what makes teaching hard. Consider how you would guide a friend to construct a model bridge out of toy interlocking bricks. There are many challenges that need to be addressed. Does your friend have the necessary building blocks? Do they already have pre-assembled the correct footings to attach the bridge? How do you convey the required steps to them accurately and efficiently? What’s more important for this model, building with the exact shapes or colours?
A teacher faces similar difficulties: Does the student enter with the necessary background? Are there gaps or wrong assumptions in their preconceptions? How does the teacher help the student effectively parse new information and incorporate it into their understanding? How, as educators, do we ensure we impart the knowledge we mean to, and not some spurious details? Then there is the difficulty of assessing a student’s understanding. We have only indirect access to the student’s internal representation of a subject. Even the best-designed assessments can only reveal a fraction of a student’s understanding. (Imagine we can’t see our friend’s model bridge. How do we check if it’s built correctly?) We need to figure out, with only this limited information, how to help the student move forward.
Those are some of the challenges an educator faces with each student. On top of that, we spend most of our time teaching many (and diverse) students simultaneously. How do we ensure that all students in a class are fully included and learning effectively?
I have been lucky to have some exceptional mentors throughout my teaching career. I began as a graduate teaching assistant with the guidance of very gifted and dedicated instructors. For many years, I had the wonderful opportunity to be paired up with passionate, experienced professors in team-taught courses.
I learned many valuable lessons about teaching and pedagogy from my mentors. And through them, I was introduced to many different perspectives and philosophies of education. But none would claim to have the best approach to teaching – or even that there exists an objectively best approach. We each need to employ the tools and skills we have, to find an effective way to help students learn. This is one of the things I love about teaching: you can’t expect to be perfect; you can only try to become better.
What I’ve found works best for me is to try to foster a scientific attitude in my students. Science is a complicated field, driven by many factors. But the best scientists I know share two great traits: curiosity and skepticism. They ask questions, seek answers, and check that their answers make sense. With this mindset, they tend to correct their own misconceptions and become less wrong. I aim to develop this mindset in my students.
Curiosity is a wonderful motivator and motivated students learn better. Indeed, research shows that curiosity is a strong predictor of academic success (von Stumm, Hell, and Chamorro-Premuzic 2011). I strive to rouse the curiosity my students already have, usually by demonstrating how techniques we are learning can shed new light on topics they’re already interested in. That motivates them to invest the time necessary to learn these methods and skills.
Once they’ve developed the needed skills, students can satisfy their curiosity by applying them to a question of interest. But there’s a hidden danger here: mistakes are common, especially for novices. A naïve student, upon finding an “answer”, may leave off there. If they’re wrong, they may never know and won’t have actually learned much.
That’s why I believe it’s important to foster skepticism alongside curiosity. A skeptical student is motivated to check their solution, to make sure it’s plausible. If they discover they’re wrong, they’ll seek to correct their misconception and learn the concept correctly. Skepticism of one’s own ideas is a kind of metacognition, thinking about thinking. As argued by Fink, developing this mindset “enables students to continue learning in the future” (Fink 2013).
I want my students to become curious skeptics. I try to foster curiosity and skepticism in their natures so it becomes ingrained. By nurturing this attitude, I aim to put them on the path to becoming great scientists!